Archaeology and Audiophilia

One of the trickiest things about having a blog is making the decisions about how far one can stray from the main themes or topics that my audience expects. Every now and then, I feel the overwhelming urge to blog about something unrelated to Mediterranean archaeology, teaching, or academic life, and recently I’ve had to itch to blog about my audiophile habits. This is in part because I’ve been riding my bike on a magnetic trainer indoors this winter. This is boring, but I do have plenty of blank time to relax and think about random things.

The past few weeks, I’ve been staring at this crazy pair of old speakers that I think I acquired from a graduate student buddy. They are Realistic Nova 10 speakers. They were introduced in 1981 and have 8 inch drivers paired with extended range tweeters and a 8 inch passive radiators in sealed cabinets. They’re not big and not unattractive in that vintage kind of way. They sound sort of like crap, with a pretty shrill upper midrange and almost no bass extension. Presumably the passive radiators was an effort to compensate for that, but even with the passive radiators these speakers only extend down to 80 Hz! The tweeters are super live and harsh even when driven by a Peachtree Decco with a tube stage. This is all bad, but they were free and their main job is to provide enough of a din to prevent me from noticing that my legs and lungs hurt while churning out stationary miles on the bike. In other words, they serve a purpose.

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They are a far cry from my “grown up system” in my living room which features more exotic equipment from Audio Research and Zu, and not nearly as refined as my office system at home with a vintage Marantz 2235B and a pair of lovely Energy bookshelf speakers. (My office at work has a sweet little NAD 312 (the last iteration of the 3020) driving a pair of Pioneer SP-BS41s and a little Vali headphone amp from Schiit). This got me thinking about how these completely different system could exist side-by-side in the same house. The gear ranges from the early 1980s (the Realistic speakers and the Marantz) to the 1990s (the Energy bookshelf speakers and the NAD) and rather more recently. The points of origin range from Japan (Marantz, Realistic) to China (Marantz) to the U.S.A. (Zu, Audio Research) and Canada (Energy). Despite all of this stereo equipment being “disposable” consumer goods, they nevertheless present a diverse, diachronic, and functional assemblage.

As I’ve been spinning out the miles on my bike, I started to wonder about how this kind of diversity in an assemblage could inform how I think about pottery in 7th century Cyprus. The 7th century has traditionally been seen as a period of decline, but recent scholarship has suggested that this perspective misrepresents the persistent vitality of the island. In particular, scholars have recognized that high-quality consumer goods (so to speak) like Cypriot Red Slip pottery continued to be produced and circulated on the island well into the late 7th century (and perhaps later) as did more pedestrian types like Dhiorios cooking pots from kilns in western Cyprus (that circulated widely in the region) or Late Roman Type 1 amphoras and their decedents produced either on the island or in nearby Cilicia in Asia Minor.

What is even more striking is that Marcus Rautman and others have identified rather crude handmade vessels in the same contexts as more “international” objects like Cypriot Red Slip. At first, we might be inclined to argue that these handmade vessels reflect a general decline in the quality of material culture associated with these periods, but their existence alongside more refined objects like Cypriot Red Slip suggests that the 7th century consumer continued to have access to finer quality vessels, but chose for whatever reason to select relatively poorly made vessels. The obvious (if partial) answer is that economic problems in the 7th century led to a decline in the market for high quality red slipped wares, but not its complete collapse. This is not too dissimilar to my decision to use the Realistic Nova 10 speakers on my basement system. They were free and (I’ve been told that) the (very) local economy could not support more stereo equipment at this juncture.

Fair enough. The result was an assemblage of equipment that is functionally similar, but, nevertheless, represents a diverse set of economic circumstances that accounts for relatively modest gear interspersed with somewhat more expensive and refined equipment. 

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2 Comments

  1. What people retain can be weird and not always utilitarian. My wife still has her mother’s plain bamboo steamer and it is nearly all she has since most of her family’s stuff was lost in the WW II bombing of Tokyo. I have no reason to believe that common folk weren’t sentimental “back then.” Likewise, when I visited Japanese homes some years ago I would find the most simple and utilitarian but artistically beautiful household objects – often decades old – flanked by cheap mother of pearl and plastic souvenirs of the Nara deer garden. (For example: At one tiny and simple country house, rain water from the roof was run off through bamboo pipes to fill a little goldfish pond – cost $0.00.)

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  2. It’s your blog, write what you want. Hah. But well done wrapping it back around to your main theme. The blank space of boring exercise is the best place for the brain to make the random connections that result in creativity.

    And, as an outsider to official archaeology, I’ve long suspected our assumptions and reasoning applied backwards in time to other cultures based on bits and pieces of pottery, etc. is highly suspect. I look around at the stuff I have and laugh about what some future archaeologist will make of it. It could make for some fun fiction writing – futurist archaeological studies.

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